Reduce the Learning Gap through Targeted Support for Underachieving Students

Supplemental learning material can be provided through an online system. Photo credit: ADB.

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Lessons from the Republic of Korea’s basic skills guarantee policy show how adaptive testing and guidance can ensure learning continuity amid COVID-19.


Asia and the Pacific has achieved universal primary schooling, but the dropout rate and learning deficit are still unacceptably high in many countries. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has deepened the learning crisis. A 2021 World Bank report shows that in low- and middle-income countries, the share of children living in learning poverty—already 53% before the pandemic—could potentially reach 70% given the long school closures. Learning deficit, particularly in early grades and critical periods, can lead to the high possibility of failure in future learning because the curriculum content taught in schools is hierarchical in structure and interrelated between grades. However, this deficit can be reduced if students with learning difficulties receive targeted support to bring them to their grade level before moving to the next grade.

Since the health crisis has exacerbated learning deficits around the world, it is critical for the most affected countries to urgently reinforce their support systems to improve learning of lagging and marginalized students. A comprehensive system can help alleviate learning deficits by identifying lagging students, continuously monitoring their learning progress, and guiding them in their studies with special support.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) has implemented the Diagnose-and-Supplement System of Basic Skills, an online–offline system for students from grades 1 to 10 with low academic achievement. A publication by the Asian Development Bank takes a closer look at this system and discusses its policy implications and potential for use in developing countries.


The ROK’s educational achievements can be attributed largely to effective student assessment. The country integrated policy measures on curriculum reform with effective student learning measurement and feedback mechanisms to strengthen the public school system.

Comprehensive policies were implemented to support underachieving students since 2008. These include the National Assessment of Education Achievement (NAEA), Diagnose-and-Supplement System of Basic Skills (DASOBS), designation of schools and teachers leading in basic academic ability, and community cooperation. The comprehensive system utilizes results from the NAEA and has proposed, in various national and international assessments, systematic improvements in learning based on empirical studies.

National Assessment of Education Achievement (NAEA)

From 2009 to 2012, all grade 6, 9, and 11 students participated in this nationwide test. They received detailed information on their academic levels for all subjects (advanced, proficient, basic, and below-basic level) and recommendations for additional study based on how they compare with other students nationwide. Schools, meanwhile, received information on the percentage of students who failed to achieve the basic level. The assessment was used to check and support schools' educational accountability and required school leaders to pay more attention to lagging students. 

Since 2013, the assessment’s 100% coverage has been gradually replaced with samples of around 3%–5% of the students in grades 9 and 10 to ease the test burden and competition among schools. It has been mainly used to improve the curriculum by analyzing students' achievements and monitoring issues related to curriculum implementation at the school level.

Diagnose-and-Supplement System of Basic Skills (DASOBS)

The system diagnoses students’ basic academic abilities constantly, and in stages, identifies academically struggling students, tracks their progress, and provides them with personalized guidance and supplemental materials to help them study subjects and lessons according to their achievement levels. It has three primary tasks: (1) check students who are starting a new grade and identify those who are below the basic academic level; (2) check the progress of below-basic students at regular intervals throughout the year to determine improvements in their basic academic abilities; and (3) after each diagnosis, provide supplemental learning material to students who need it.

Table 1: Comparing NAEA and DASOBS

Purpose To provide information that can be referenced to enhance curriculum achievement and improve curriculum quality by examining national trends in academic achievement levels To support academically underachieving students in gradually obtaining basic learning abilities by continuously evaluating the students and providing them with supplemental guidance throughout the school year
Targets Grades 9 and 11
Sample schools aroung 3%–5%
Grades 1–10
Start of the semester: all students
Throughout the semester: students who placed below basic on the initial diagnostic test
Subjects Grade 9: Korean, social studies, math, natural science, and English
Grade 10: Korean, math, and English
Grade 1 and 2: basic Korean and basic math
Grade 3: reading, writing, and arithmetic
Grade 4-9: Korean, social studies, history, math, natural science, and English
Grade 10: Korean, math, and English
Test period September March, June, September, and December
Material covered Grade 9: Grades 7–9 (first semester)
Grade 10: Korean, English: cross-curricular material
Grade 10 math: high school math
Grade 1, 2: curriculum material for grades 1 and 2
Grade 3: curriculum material for grades 1–3
Grades 4-10: material from the previous year to the current year
Assessed achievement levels Below-basic, basic, proficient, and advanced Below-basic and above-basic
Level of difficulty Level 1 to 4 Curriculum fulfillment level "low"

NAEA = National Assessment of Education Achievement
DASOBS = Diagnose-and-Supplement System of Basic Skills
Source: Authors.

Reinforcing expertise in teaching basic skills

Aside from focusing on teaching and evaluation methodology, teachers need to understand the characteristics of lagging students and ascertain whether they have the expertise to guide them. In classes with more than 20 students, district offices dispatch specialized teachers who will provide one-on-one guidance for academically underachieving students. This not only enhances students’ literacy and numeracy but also raises self-confidence and self-esteem. In addition, various experts, including class advisers, basic literacy teachers, counselors, and health teachers, work as a team in schools.

Enhancing links with the community

Schools also work with learning centers in the community to reduce learning gaps. The city governments support marginalized students in their respective regions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, an information technology company supported university students in mentoring lagging students through online after-school programs.

Policy Design and Implementation

DASOBS is currently being used in grades 1–10 nationwide with cooperation among the Ministry of Education, 17 municipal education offices, the Korea Education Research Information Service, and Chungnam National University.

It has the following main features:

  • initial diagnostic test (the Diagnostic Test for Basic Skills) and supplemental learning materials;
  • level-based, stick-to-the-curriculum system with test types that do not vary in difficulty but differ in the topics covered;
  • up-to-date content based on most recent curriculum;
  • test questions at the lowest level of national curriculum fulfillment standards;
  • test items directly related to the supplemental materials;
  • objective diagnosis of students through the use of the bookmark standard-setting method (Cizek 2012);
  • collaboration of a university and a government-funded research institution to develop and deliver the tests, the test results, and the supplemental material;
  • flexibility for online or offline testing;
  • focus on below-basic students, and can identify and guide them; and
  • regular testing of grade 1–10 students and support to prevent knowledge deficiencies in basic academic skills from accumulating over several years.

Chungnam National University’s BASECAMP website stores in a database all released content from DASOBS. It ensures that students who cannot be physically present in school can access the supplemental material and resume learning to achieve the basic level of academic skills, even during a pandemic.

Policy Implications

Underachieving students need individualized support in order to learn basic skills. Implementing a system like DASOBS has several policy implications.

  • Schools need a supplemental system that efficiently guides lagging students according to their grades and subjects and continuously monitors them throughout the year.
  • The development and operation of a DASOBS-like system require a dedicated entity or a control tower that organizes and oversees institutions and supports the administrative and financial part of the system, as is being done in the ROK.
  • Teachers should be trained in suitable teaching methods to equip them to provide proper guidance to students at the below basic level.
  • There must be an online system that enables these students to regularly learn through test items and access supplementary learning materials that match their level.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 highlights education as an essential component of social equity. Every person must have access to equitable and quality primary and secondary education. This would require a high-quality education system that strives for equity throughout the entire learning process and provides sufficient support to ensure that no one is left behind.


Chungnam National University’s BASECAMP website.

G. J. Cizek, ed. 2012. Setting Performance Standards: Foundations, Methods, and Innovations. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

J. C. Ban, S. Kim, and M. Shin. 2022. Supporting Lagging Students and Learning for All: Applying the Diagnose-and-Supplement System of Basic Skills in the Republic of Korea. Manila: Asian Development Bank.

Ministry of Education, Republic of Korea. 2020. The 2020 Master Plan to Support Improving the

Basic Academic Ability of Students. Press release. December.

S. Ra, S. Kim, and K. J. Rhee. 2019. Developing National Student Assessment Systems for Quality Education: Lessons from the Republic of Korea. Manila: Asian Development Bank.

The World Bank. 2021. Ending Learning Poverty.

Jae-Chun Ban
Professor, Chungnam National University

Jae-Chun Ban is also the director of the university’s Applied Measurement and Evaluation Center responsible for developing the Diagnose-and-Supplement System of Basic Skills. As a psychometrician, he is interested in large-scale test development, item response theory, equating, standard setting, and cognitive diagnostic modeling.

Sun Kim
Research Professor, Applied Measurement and Evaluation Center, Chungnam National University

Sun Kim plans, develops, and runs the Diagnose-and-Supplement System of Basic Skills. She is a psychometrician. Her areas of interest include large-scale and classroom test development, item response theory, equating, standard setting, feedback, and performance assessment.

Meekyung Shin
Education Specialist, Human and Social Development Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank

Meekyung Shin specializes secondary education policies, Higher Education Innovation, and equity. She has participated in research and provided consulting services on innovative projects in the field of higher education. She is currently working on support projects to strengthen the educational capacity of medical and nursing schools in developing countries.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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